There’s big business in beer, and it’s more than deciding between a schooner and a middy. Ben Canaider discovers the magic of putting malt on a menu.
Beer’s not what it used to be. Once the unthinkingly democratic drink of our nation, it’s all got a little bit posh these days. Mostly, this is a good thing. Quality and diversity are on the rise, with more brands, more beers and lots of microbrewers doing clever things with microbrews. As a result, the big-name brewers have been forced to raise the bar. So now, beer not only offers a greater diversity of tastes, it’s also fresher and is delivered more effectively.
It’s all good news, because fresh beer is good beer. That’s the number one rule.
But what comes after that? What are the pitfalls and problems? And what should restaurateurs be looking for in an on-premise beer to maximise sales and margins?
Before answering any of that, it’s important to understand that the beer market has segmented. We used to just have ‘beer’. Now we have ‘beer’ and ‘premium beer’. The premium segment is broken down further, into imported ales and microbews or boutique beers. Mid strength and low carb beers have also had massive retail growth in the last few years. To understand this even more compellingly, it is wise not forget one thing: VB still outsells every other packaged beer on the market—by some distance—with 17.2 per cent of total market share. This is more than double the sales of its nearest rival, XXXX Mid Strength. The old-fashioned brands still dominate, while old faithfuls with new mid strength stage names are also doing well—perhaps a spin-off from the rise in responsible driving. Low-carb beers have enjoyed a similar surge in sales, no thanks to contemporary issues of body image and dieting.
But it seems there’s little crossover when it comes to on-premise beer sales. The traditional Aussie brand names don’t do well in restaurants, which is instead the playground of imported beers and microbrews. Their growth, market share and, perhaps most importantly, their price, has started to bite into the sales of traditional, local beers.
Imported beer now makes up 50 per cent of the premium beer market, but its sales are growing at four times the rate of local premiums. This growth is never more clearly evidenced than in higher-end bars and dining venues, where premium imported beers are the new black. Crown Lager is no longer the international passport to drinking cred; now impostors like Corona, Heineken and Becks are leading the way.
There is a weird anomaly in this, however. Premium imported beer in Australia is classified as any beer with its origins in a foreign country. Hence, beers like Heineken and Becks can be made in Australia under licence, but they are still classified as imported brews. Whether customers realise this—or even care about it—is of little importance. The very real upside to the brewed-locally-under-licence factor is its freshness—which is the number one rule, if you recall.
Craft beers are also making an impact on local sales. And these, co-incidentally, also offer their own strange anomaly. Many craft brews are not as ‘crafty’ what you might imagine—that is, two blokes in a shed using top-quality ingredients and small-batch brewing techniques. Australia’s highest-selling ‘craft’ brews include Little Creatures, James Squire and Matilda Bay, all of which boast big brewery ownership and corporate backing. But strange as it might be, if this helps to lift the quality and diversity of Aussie beer, is it really such a bad thing?
One positive effect of big brewery ownership lies in the area of cost competitiveness. No doubt part of the reason craft beers (and perhaps boutique and microbrews as well) have grown in popularity is because their price is closer to that of local and traditional brews. If a Crown Lager sets you back $6.50 in a bar, then why not buy the Little Creatures or a bottle of Heineken at the same price? Apart from the better taste of a more boutique brew, you’ll get an immediate posh makeover for no extra charge.
The temptation for some operators to push up prices for their specialist beers might come back to bite them, however. Any boutique brew that costs $9 a stubby may well drive drinkers back to VB—particularly when a $6.50 Corona from a bar is, volumetrically, one 24th of a large liquor chain’s $45 slab. Clearing $4.50 per stubby aint bad odds. Prices like this will likely raise the ire of your customers, who are probably already chafing at the $12 mineral water or $35 bottle of basic Chardy. With a beer each, mineral water and a bottle of wine, the $60 beverage bill easily outweighs two $20 spaghetti marinas. Every restaurateur loves these big-drinking customers, but they also need to be looked after.
Maybe you should think about buying them a beer once and a while.